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Saturday Q&A

For the dog days of summer, this was an unusually big news week.

Q: Afghanistan is known as the "Graveyard of Empires." Do you think that the Taliban will succeed where so many foreign powers have failed, and would an Afghanistan united under Taliban rule be "better" or "worse" than an Afghanistan descending into anarchy, with multiple petty but bloody squabbles between neighboring warlords? B.B., St. Louis, MO

A: The Taliban are theocrats who believe that their ends justify whatever means they deem necessary. So, they will be able to build a nominally stable government, though it will involve heavy use of violence and fear. And that government won't be much of a partner to the other nations of the world, in part because the Taliban dislikes outsiders, and in part because outsiders dislike the Taliban.

For people living in Afghanistan, particularly women, LGBTQ folks, and non-Muslims, "anarchy and warlords" would probably be better than the Taliban, but not by much. Either way, the citizenry will be under the thumbs of people who rule via brute force, and who think nothing of imposing their agenda on others. For the outside world, it's also a very close call. On one hand, a nation nominally unified under the Taliban has the potential to become a client state of China or Russia, and thus an additional headache for everyone else. That's not as likely with an "anarchy and warlords" situation, but "anarchy and warlords" is more likely to foment potential terrorists (see Osama bin Laden). As with Kim Jong-Un, the Taliban is unlikely to engage in large, overt acts of violence against the United States. Not because they are opposed to that, per se, but because they fear being invaded and toppled if they try it.

Q: I recently rewatched Ken Burns' "The Vietnam War" documentary series (it's quite excellent despite the brutal subject matter), and as much as it pains every fiber in my being saying this, I kind of agree with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that it seems like we're hurtling toward a sequel to the fall of Saigon. Check out the last episode of the series to see what a sh*t show the final troop pullout was—I had no idea how bad it got for the Americans as well as the Vietnamese.

But my question for you is regarding what you think will be the legacy of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. I was a teen when the war started and I followed it pretty closely. The original goals were pretty clear: Destroy al-Qaeda training camps, take out the Taliban who aided them, and hunt down Osama bin Laden. Most Americans were in agreement that we had good reasons to be there (at least, there was far more agreement than there was about Iraq). But after a few years, as the Iraq War and then the Great Recession took over, Afghanistan became known as The Forgotten War. It became harder to find mainstream sources regularly covering what was happening there. At least the soldiers weren't treated like crap when they came home, unlike during the Vietnam War (though whether they received proper medical and mental support when returning home is another matter).

So how do you think future Americans will remember the Afghanistan War?
B.T., Kansas City, MO

A: As a general rule, people do not retain a lot of information about specific chapters of historical events. Consider World War II, which has gotten vast attention from Americans and from the American media. How many specific events from that conflict do you think the average American could describe or explain in a meaningful way? Unless they are a history "buff," or they have some personal connection to a particular incident ("My grandpa participated in the liberation of the Philippines!"), we would guess that the list of events familiar to most Americans includes Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that's about it.

The list gets even smaller with wars that do not get World War II-level (or Civil War-level) attention. How many specific incidents do you think the average American could describe or explain if asked about the Mexican-American War? The Indian Wars? The Spanish-American War? The Philippine War? World War I? The Korean War? Even the Vietnam War, which is still in living memory for many Americans? Maybe the Gulf of Tonkin and the Tet Offensive?

McConnell is absolutely right that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is looking a lot like the fall of Saigon. That makes sense, since there is rarely such thing as an orderly retreat, particularly when civilians are involved. However, as we've already speculated, we think that image/storyline will not be particularly enduring. For most Americans, in very short order, Afghanistan is going to be remembered as Vietnam, The Sequel, and another object lesson in why attempted nation-building, and entering into wars with vague goals, rarely works out.

Q: Has the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be the worst policy decision in the history of the United States? J.K., Jackson, MI

A: Bad? We would say so. Worst ever? We can't even begin to come up with a way to make such an evaluation.

To start with, the U.S. has made a lot of unwise choices when it comes to mucking around in other countries. Were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq worse than the escalation of the Vietnam War? Than helping overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and then propping up the Shah for 25 years? Than pissing off the Red Russians by trying to help the White Russians during the Russian Civil War? Than instigating a war in the Phillipines that left as many as half a million Filipinos dead?

And then you get to decisions that are in the "apples and oranges" category. Were Iraq and Afghanistan worse than sanctioning segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson? Than writing a Second Amendment that was too unspecific and too open to interpretation? Than Indian removal? Than the 1980s/1990s "war" on drugs and crime? Than the decision to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic, and to politicize masks and vaccinations? Than the construction of "It's a Small World" at Disneyland?

Ok, clearly "It's a Small World" exists on its own level of monstrousness, one that mortal man cannot hope to achieve ever again, as much as the Cyrus family has tried. But beyond that, we just don't know how to rank these various policy choices. All we can say is that "disaster" doesn't begin to do them justice.

Q: I read that 95% of doctors are vaccinated, but when I went to Bing to search for information, I got different answers from different websites. The top two hits were medical-based websites with news articles stating that of 300 general physicians surveyed, 95% had been vaccinated. The next two websites were right-leaning, and insisted that the 95% was wrong, that they have surveyed 600 doctors, and that only 60% had taken the vaccine. It worries me greatly that any facts I see are quickly challenged by the right. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but it's frustrating trying to confirm everything that I read online. I was hoping you could shed some light on how many doctors have taken the vaccine and how to make sure that the facts I'm getting are correct. P.H., Minneapolis, MN

A: We were not able to find the specific articles that you describe, even with various searches of Bing. However, we think that—per the available evidence—the answer is not actually somewhere in the middle, and that the 95% figure is the much more correct one.

A few tools that are useful when it comes to evaluating websites (or books, or newspapers, or any other source of information), and that we would say are relevant here:

So, where did that 60% number come from? Since we can't find the story, we don't know, though there are many possible explanations. The pollster might have chosen a poor sample, either accidentally or deliberately. The outlet may have misunderstood or misrepresented the findings. The report you read might have been old; the number surely was 60%...back in March. In any event, it's not 60% anymore.

Q: When it comes to restrictions on mask mandates and vaccination requirements being put into place by the likes of Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Greg Abbott (R-TX), is there a point to where they could actually become criminally liable for illness and death as a result? I imagine the parents starting to file lawsuits over these restrictions will be successful, but at what point (if any) do the actions of these "governors" cross the line of criminal negligence? Especially since people will certainly die as a result of such restrictions. T.H., Kansas City, MO

A: Going after a public official in this way is very difficult. Because it would not be good for public officials to spend all their time dealing with frivolous lawsuits, and because it would not be good for them to be afraid to govern; those officials—including the two governors—have what is called "qualified immunity" from prosecution. Essentially, if they were acting in an official capacity, and they were exercising their discretion while doing so, they generally can't be sued or prosecuted as individuals, even if their actions had deleterious consequences (it may still be possible to sue the city/county/state they work for).

As the term makes clear, though, the immunity is qualified, and does not apply in all circumstances. The Supreme Court has wrestled with this in a number of different cases, and the standard they have come up with is that a government official can be personally liable if their actions violated a clearly established statute or constitutional right, even if those actions were undertaken in an official capacity.

So, it is theoretically possible the governors could be sued or prosecuted. However, it would be an uphill battle. Not only would a plaintiff have to find a law or a constitutional right that was violated, they would also have to prove that, but for that violation, person [X] would still be alive. To illustrate this in more concrete terms, consider Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd. Police officers enjoy qualified immunity, but Chauvin's actions clearly violated laws against assault and homicide, and the cause-and-effect relationship between Chauvin's actions and Floyd's death was crystal clear. By contrast, it is not immediately apparent to us what law/constitutional provision the two governors might have violated, and it would be very hard indeed to prove that, but for their anti-mask mandates, Mr. Chester Jones of The Villages, FL, would still be alive. A very skilled lawyer might be able to overcome these problems, but probably not.

Q: In reference to Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY), you wrote:

Hochul said: "I fully expect to [run for reelection]. I've prepared for this, I've led a life working in every level of government from Congress to local government, I am the most prepared person to assume this responsibility, and I'm going to ask the voters at some point for their faith in me again." Before being elected lieutenant governor in 2015, she had just 6 years in elective office, having served 4 years as County Clerk of Erie County, along with one term in the House of Representatives. However, she did work in a number of behind-the-scenes roles, mostly as a legal/policy aide, and she was also been an activist for various causes. So, readers can assess how on-target Hochul's accounting of her political career is."

I took this commentary more as a critique of Lt. Gov. Hochul's description of her political experience rather than a comment on her actual political experience, but it still caused me to think. I'm a lawyer and business owner in my late 30s. Someday I hope to run for governor of my lifelong home state of Arizona. What kind of political experience would I realistically have to accumulate before a gubernatorial campaign in order to be reasonably confident that political journalists would not critique me as a politically inexperienced candidate? B.W. in Flagstaff, AZ

A: We did not mean to suggest she's inexperienced, or even to critique her, per se. When we heard her say that, it brought to mind a résumé that did not square with our knowledge of her career. And when we went and checked, the facts were not enough for us to declare "oh, yes, she really is someone with vast experience," but neither were they enough for us to declare "she's spinning her record like crazy." So, we gave the details and said that readers could decide for themselves.

In any case, she's not inexperienced. At most, she's a little less experienced than her words implied. And as to your question, what most governors have in common is service in some other state-level office prior to their governorship. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), for example, was lieutenant governor, the soon-to-be-departed Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) was the state's attorney general, and in your home state, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) was state treasurer. U.S. Senator, while not a state-level office, is elected statewide, so we would say that also counts for this purpose. Failing that, people like round numbers, so 10 years' service in the House of Representatives, in the state legislature, as a mayor, etc., or some combination therein, should be enough that nobody writes "does this candidate really have enough experience?" articles.

Q: I was one of the ones who missed the Andrew Cuomo resignation date by a mile. But big deal. I'm always wrong about this sort of thing.

I was struck by how badly New Yorkers did, though. I'm wondering if, as you look at the distribution of predictions, did New Yorkers tend to expect a much longer delay than others? My hypothesis is "yes," because our legislature is so slow and everything is so cumbersome. But then again, I'm always wrong about things. You guys have the data: What gives?
D.A., Brooklyn, NY

A: New Yorkers did not do particularly better or worse overall on guessing dates, but they were overrepresented in the "he's not going to resign" group. That could indeed be from those folks' experience with how the state runs. However, if you asked us to guess, we would suspect it is based on their experience with Cuomo's personality. He's likely much more of a "tough, take-no-prisoners, never-give-up, consequences-be-damned" guy in the minds of New Yorkers than he is in the minds of non-New Yorkers.

Q: Now that my California recall ballot has arrived in the mail, I would like some advice as to how to best use my vote. My goal is to keep Gavin Newsom in office and prevent the worst outcome (in terms of a Republican candidate winning) if he is recalled. Obviously, I want to vote "no" on the first question (recalling Newsom). But without making any specific endorsements, what strategy should I use for the second question (his replacement)? Should I leave it blank? Should I choose a Democrat in the hopes that one of them wins with a majority? Or choose a Republican, assuming that one of them will win and I want to have a say in the least worst of the lot? M.P., San Francisco, CA

A: There is no utility in voting for the "best" Republican. Barring a dramatic change in polling, Larry Elder is so far ahead of the rest of the GOP field that he's going to be the top Republican vote-getter.

That means that the correct tactical choice is to figure out which Democrat is likely to attract the most votes, and to vote for them. That appears to be Kevin Paffrath, though you might want to watch the California Democratic Party's Twitter account, to see if they come out strongly for some Democrat in the week or two before the election. Newsom is telling Democrats to skip the second question, but that's because his interests and the Party's interests are somewhat different here. He doesn't want any of the Democrats on the ballot to seem viable, for fear that will encourage more Democrats to want to try someone new. So, all he can say is "don't vote for anyone." Skipping that part of the ballot won't actually help him in any way, but it will help the Republicans.

Thus far, the Democrats have been playing along, because Newsom currently offers the best odds of keeping the governor's mansion. However, the Party cares vastly more about keeping the office than they care about keeping him in particular. They'll remain in lockstep with the Governor for a while, but if he looks to be in trouble—particularly if it's serious trouble—they will make sure to speak up about the best alternative candidate "just in case."

Q: I have a question about the California recall. Specifically, does the recall target the person or the position? To put it another way, assume tomorrow Gavin Newsom is found in bed with a live boy and a dead girl and he sees the polling numbers that show his political career is over. If he resigned, then as I understand it, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis takes over as governor. Does the recall election go ahead, with Kounalakis being the one to face recall, or does it die with Newsom's governorship? J.H., Southend-on-Sea, UK

A: This was not an easy question to answer; we consulted multiple people who write a blog specifically about election law, and they were unable to help. So, we booked a room at a Holiday Inn Express and then, the next morning, rolled up our sleeves and dug into the California codes (which are immense).

There are two passages of the section on recalls that are relevant here. First, the code describes a recall election as an "election to determine whether to recall an officer and, if appropriate, to elect a successor." This makes clear that the target is the officer, and not the office. It also strongly suggests that if Newsom were to resign, then Kounalakis would take over and would not be in danger of losing her job. Since the office would be occupied, it would no longer be "appropriate" to elect a successor.

This may bring up two additional questions: (1) If Newsom resigns, why have the recall? and (2) Could Newsom, Kounalakis, and the state legislature conspire to get around the recall by having him resign, wait until after the recall date, be appointed to the vacant lieutenant governorship, and then having Kounalakis resign, returning him to the governor's mansion? It turns out that these two questions have the same answer, and that is where the other passage of the section on recalls is germane. It reads: "A person who was subject to a recall petition may not be appointed to fill the vacancy in the office that he or she vacated and that person may not be appointed to fill any other vacancy in office on the same governing board for the duration of the term of office of the seat that he or she vacated." And so, as with an impeachment, there are actually two penalties potentially being assessed: (1) removal from office, and (2) disqualification from officeholding for the rest of the current term. That means that the recall would still go forward, even if Newsom resigned; if he lost, he would be disqualified from holding any statewide office for the rest of his current term. That would obviously put the kibosh on trying to do an end run around the process.

Q: When a California governor dies, resigns, or is removed by the legislature, the governor is then replaced by the current lieutenant governor, who serves out the rest of the unfinished term. I'd like to know what makes a governor's recall so special that it then requires voting for a replacement candidate when there is one already officially available. J.E., Woodland Hills, CA

A: The proximate answer is: "That's how California law is written."

The ultimate answer is that the law was put on the books by progressives about a century ago, in response to the fact that the governorship and all the other statewide offices were dominated by wealthy businessmen and their cronies. And so, in that time, removing the governor and replacing them with the lieutenant governor was not an improvement. It had to be a new person.

Q: Oregon governor Kate Brown has come under fire from the right recently for ending the use of a high school graduation exam and reexamining the state's graduation requirements. Despite the fact that most states do not require an exam for graduation, the right claims this is an example of lowering academic standards while the left says this is an opportunity to make the standards more equitable for minority groups. Given that you both work in higher education, what is your take on this? T.M., Downers Grove, IL

A: Standardized tests are often very problematic. And this test, which has no equivalent in the states where we went to high school, seems particularly problematic. Deciding whether or not someone is allowed to graduate should be done on the basis of coursework completed over many years, and thoughtfully graded by instructors. Throwing up a high-pressure roadblock like this, right at the end, seems to offer very little benefit.

Standardized tests absolutely do discriminate, in various ways. They discriminate against those who may not cope with pressure well, or who may not be great at test taking. They discriminate against those who may be differently abled. And they do sometimes produce different results based on the student's ethnicity and/or their social class. The latter issue is the primary reason the SAT is problematic; it's not that the College Testing Board uses "white" words or "rich-people math," it's that people with money can afford practice materials and/or prep courses, while poor people cannot (though Z is happy to report that the rich kids at his high school took their $2,000 SAT prep classes and they cheated during the test, and he still leveled them all).

Perhaps our biggest concern/complaint here is that a test of this sort necessarily privileges a particular agenda. We haven't seen the exam, but we're guessing it has a bunch of questions about things like grammar and vocabulary and multiplication. That's all good and well, but is it more useful than being able to use an Internet search engine properly, or balance a checkbook, or change a flat tire, or read a news story critically, or prepare a healthy meal for under $20? It rather depends on the course that your life takes. And guess what? If you really need correct grammar in your adult/professional life, or you really need to be able to change a tire, or whatever, you'll pick those skills up if you don't have them—test or no test. And if you don't end up needing those things, then why was the test necessary?

Q: Just read your item that notes that some U.S. ambassadors are career diplomats. For which countries is this currently the case, and why? It doesn't seem to be the most important countries. For example, the ambassador to Russia is a politician (with some service in the State Department, but not what I'd call a career diplomat), all recent ambassadors to China were politicians (currently the post is vacant), the ambassador to U.K. was a fundraiser for Obama, and the nominee for ambassador to Mexico is a politician. J.K., Bergen, Norway

A: An exhaustive list would be tough, in part because some appointees are in a gray area, and in part because, as you note, some posts haven't been filled. That said, there are really three kinds of ambassadorial posts:

Different presidents split things up in different ways, of course. About half of Donald Trump's ambassadors were being rewarded for loyalty/fundraising; Joe Biden says he's going to keep that to 25%.

Q: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are complaining about the inflationary effects of the $3.5 trillion infrastructure reconciliation bill. I know he doesn't want to raise taxes on corporations too much, but why is there no discussion anywhere of raising rates on incomes over $1 million to, say, 50% (as it was through 1986)? Why isn't that (along with tax increases for estate, carried interest and capital gains) on the table for funding infrastructure and limiting inflation risks? It seems like a place where the Manchinians and progressives could agree, albeit for different reasons. R.E.M., Brooklyn, NY

A: The very first paper that (Z) wrote for grad school required him to select a bus route in Los Angeles, ride for 10 miles, and then analyze what he saw in terms of how urban spaces are organized. He rode down Wilshire Blvd., a major L.A. thoroughfare that goes right through the middle of swanky Beverly Hills (and also right through Santa Monica, Koreatown, the Miracle Mile, etc.). And one of the observations he made was that there are virtually no bus stops where rich people live and shop, and that the ones that are there are so understated as to be easily overlooked.

The point here is that rich people are really, really good at applying pressure to politicians and other public officials to get things just the way they want them. It's certainly possible that an increase in the top rate is being discussed right now, but a wise politician would not say so openly. It's also possible that it's not being discussed, for fear of blowback. Recall that corporations have money, and can hire lobbyists, but they can't actually vote. Rich individuals can, and do.

The other issue is that it's not so simple as raising the top rate and calling it a day. Anytime a change like that is made, it incentivizes certain kinds of economic decisions. So, a would-be tax raiser has to think about loopholes they might want to close, and also possible consequences of their choices. Ultimately, dramatically increasing the top tax rate, depending on how it's done, might not raise all that much money at all, and might serve only to encourage certain kinds of tax-avoidance schemes.

Q: Remembering back to last summer, I recall the seemingly endless protests of officer-involved shootings of Black people—riots, lootings, burnings—and of course, the constant drumbeat of the GOP pointing out the menace of BLM and the seemingly-ultra-evil ANTIFA.

This summer, I'm not seeing the rioting, looting, etc., although the GOP is still beating their drums about the threats posed by BLM and ANTIFA to God-fearing patriots who just want to hug and kiss and tour the U.S. Capitol. Anyway, am I not watching the news closely enough, or have there really been almost no protests so far this year relating to seemingly racist police encounters with Black people? And if the latter, why do you think things are so much calmer this year than last? Are the police behaving better because of the convictions in the George Floyd trial and/or fear of being defunded? Has Trump being out of the White House (and off of Twitter and Facebook) relieved some of the racial tensions in America? Or is the media simply not covering incidents that might spark protests in hopes of keeping things less explosive for Joe Biden's first year in office? Or maybe something else entirely?
J.L., Los Angeles, CA

A: These sorts of questions are among the most difficult that historians grapple with, as people's feelings don't always produce tangible evidence to work with. So, you kind of have to put together an overall picture, and hope that you're hitting the nail on the head, or reasonably close to the head.

Anyhow, we agree that this summer was much calmer than last summer. And one thing we can say with confidence is that this is not the media's doing. For all the talk of political bias, a much more significant bias is toward sensationalism. TV news producers in particular, but print and online media as well, love, love, love rioting and mayhem. It makes for great copy and great photo-ops. They would not bury such news for any reason we can think of, particularly not as part of a pro-Biden conspiracy.

Beyond that, we can also tell you that upswings in violence like this never have just one cause, and are usually the result of many different causes coming together to form a sort of "perfect storm." The enormous tensions of the Trump era were undoubtedly part of the story last year, so too were several years' worth of high-profile incidents of police violence, the stresses of the pandemic, and all the various confrontations between private citizens (over masks, or over parking spaces, or over birdwatching, or whatever). Also to blame: Justin Bieber. We're not sure how, but we want him on the list.

The semi-recession of the pandemic, and shutting off the flow of divisive and often racist rhetoric from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, undoubtedly helped calm tensions. We would also guess that police officers are indeed trying to do better. Plus, people tend to get most angry (and most prone to violence) when they think nobody is listening. Well, change may come, and it may not come, but at least (some) people are now listening, including the fellow in the White House.

Q: You have been doing an excellent job regarding issues political. And in the last few years gender issues have become political. I am in my eighth decade, so the memories get a little foggy. I remember a book by Kurt Vonnegut in which a character mentioned there are more then two genders. I believe he said there were six. This must have been way back in the late 1960's. Do you remember the book and did it identify the six genders? G.M., Laurence Harbor, NJ

A: The Vonnegut book is definitely Slaughterhouse-Five, there are five different sexes on the planet Tralfamadore. It's not clear that Vonnegut was making a statement about modern gender roles, per se, or whether he was just trying to create a different and interesting world to set his novel in. On Tralfamadore, each of the five genders has a very set role, and one of each is necessary for reproduction. That's not exactly a statement advocating for a fluid rainbow of different gender identities.

The subject line of your message suggested you are also interested in the "true" number of gender identities. This is one of those things where there are dozens of different answers, with some arguing for a smaller number, like 5 or 10, and some arguing for dozens, or even hundreds. To give you something a little bit more specific, we present you now with a list of the different gender identities allowed on Facebook:

Cis Female
Cis Male
Cis Man
Cis Woman
Cisgender Female
Cisgender Male
Cisgender Man
Cisgender Woman
Female to Male
Gender Fluid
Gender Nonconforming
Gender Questioning
Gender Variant
Male to Female
Trans Female
Trans* Female
Trans Male
Trans* Male
Trans Man
Trans* Man
Trans Person
Trans* Person
Trans Woman
Trans* Woman
Transgender Female
Transgender Male
Transgender Man
Transgender Person
Transgender Woman
Transsexual Female
Transsexual Male
Transsexual Man
Transsexual Person
Transsexual Woman

Some of those are different ways of saying the same thing, but it nonetheless gives a sense of the breadth of possibilities.

Q: I follow the effort to change our transportation systems to rely on renewable energy sources. It is my understanding that Tesla was not invited to a meeting at the White House to discuss electric vehicles. I would be very interested in the political reasoning behind this obvious snub. J.R., Sarasota, FL

A: When you are the President of the United States, "Kill two birds with one stone" is something of a mantra. Presidents—most of them, at least—see their time as very valuable (as well they should), and try to get as much mileage out of it as possible.

So it was with that meeting. The primary purpose was to allow Biden to meet with UAW leadership, and to thank them for helping him with last year's election. To get some useful PR, it was also billed as a discussion of electric vehicles, so as to remind folks of this administration's commitment to green energy. And undoubtedly, that subject did come up, for at least a few minutes. But don't be thinking of this as some sort of summit on the future of electric cars, because it was not.

Once you know this, it is obvious why Tesla wasn't there: The company is (largely) non-union, and it tends to assiduously avoid doing PR. Elon Musk & Co. get plenty of free coverage as it is.

Q: Where I live, in coastal Maine, demand for labor has far outrun supply. If you need work done on your house, a contractor will put you on a list, "but I've got jobs lined up for the next year and a half." Contractors all say that they can't find enough workers. All the stores have help wanted signs out front. Restaurants have signs out front saying "Cooks wanted," which I don't think is the best way to advertise your restaurant. In the grocery store, I went to get graham crackers for the crust for a delicious pie my wife makes (Yes, yes. What? Of course it's chocolate! Yes. I'll send the recipe), and I was told, "We've had a graham cracker shortage for months. And other products at any given time. There aren't enough drivers to move the goods from Point A to Point B, and not enough people in the warehouses to get the products onto the trucks."

Most of these jobs are low-skilled or entry-level. Nevertheless, there is clearly a labor shortage, and people in other parts of the country tell me it's the same where they live.

Apparently, Republicans are saying it's all because the evil, wicked, socialist government is "disincentivizing" people from working; it is sending huge amounts of money to all of us so we don't have to work. On the other hand, I suspect that the Trump administration scared all the immigrant labor away and now our economy is choking because of it. Then I thought, maybe it's time to pick up the red phone direct hotline to and get help. What's the problem with the economy?
B.C., Walpole, ME

A: First of all, let us note that not everything that seems to be due to labor shortages actually is. Supply chains were disrupted, and often reoriented, during the pandemic, and it's going to take a while for them to be "repaired."

Let us give you an example (a pretty famous one). During the pandemic, people weren't buying nearly as many cars. However, they were buying lots and lots of personal electronics. So, the people who make microchips shifted their focus to making very, very tiny chips that could be sold to Bill Gates and then hidden in vaccine shots. Wait, no. That's not what happened. Or, if it is, you didn't read about it here, and you have no idea who we are.

Actually, the microchip makers quite reasonably shifted production to emphasize the sorts of chips needed by Apple and HP and Lenovo, and to deemphasize the sorts needed by Ford and Toyota and BMW. Now that the pandemic is receding, there's a car shortage that's going to take some time to fix, because first the chip makers have to reorient themselves. And that car shortage has a ripple effect. Because there aren't enough cars, rental car agencies are short on supply. And because there aren't enough rental cars, some people can't take vacations. And because some people can't take vacations, hotels aren't doing as much business. And because hotels aren't doing as much business, they are buying fewer linens. And because fewer linens are being purchased, get the point.

That said, there is also a labor shortage, as people are returning to work rather more slowly than expected. And the unemployment funds serve as both an obvious explanation, and a politically useful scapegoat for those who believe the government/welfare/etc. are evil. However, those funds are not the main issue, and don't even appear to be a particularly important one, since states that have cut off the funding aren't experiencing higher rates of employment than states that haven't cut off the funding yet.

So, if it's not the unemployment checks, what's driving the labor shortage? That's a question that will not be fully answered until we see when and how people go back to work. However, there is still a pandemic underway, one that is surging in places like Florida. A lot of the jobs that are going unfilled are the ones that present the highest risk of exposure (like line cooks). Another issue is that the pandemic (and, frankly, the resulting deaths) made many people take stock of their lives, and decide they wanted to change directions. So, a lot of folks are working on business ideas, or are signing up for classes, or are otherwise doing things that aren't jobs, but are about plotting their course in life. Also relevant is that some people are simply not in a position to go back to work yet. If you've still got kids at home, or you need a car and can't find one to buy, you're stuck in a holding pattern, for at least a little longer.

Q: Going into 2024, it is questionable whether Joe Biden will be able to run for another term given his age. There are three scenarios that could happen: (1) Biden runs for another term in 2024; (2) Biden serves this term but does not seek a second term, leaving the Democratic nomination open; or (3) Biden retires during this term and Kamala Harris takes over the presidency, where she would be the likely nominee.

What do you think would be the best case for the Republicans to win White House in 2024?
S.P., Harrisburg, PA

A: We think the odds of Biden stepping down, barring a significant change in his circumstances, are actually pretty slim. First of all, he appears to be in very good shape, and quite sprightly for a man of his years. Second, it's not too hard for the president to be the head of state—make a speech here and there, pose for some photo-ops, etc.—and to let the underlings do most of the actual work. To a greater or lesser extent, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump all spent some significant portion of their terms basically delegating everything.

Assuming there are no significant changes (a scandal, an economic downturn, etc.), the Republicans' worst-case scenario is Biden running again. He's pretty popular, attacks don't seem to stick to him, he's incumbent, and he'd have a record of accomplishment to run on. Running against Harris would be better for the GOP, but not a lot, because she would also have incumbency and a track record, and would be battle-tested, having already taken the worst slings and arrows of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. The best-case scenario for the Republicans would be if the Democratic nomination was up for grabs, since it would likely be a long and bloody primary, and the candidate might have to tack left to pick up the progressive vote, providing fodder to the Republicans for the general election.

Q: Please don't take my question the wrong way, it is simply just that....a question. Do you believe that Greg Abbott's chances of becoming a presidential contender in 2024 could be hampered due to his being paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair? Wouldn't the Trumpy supporters see this as a major weakness? M.D., San Tan Valley, AZ

A: There is no great way to know for sure. Even if you tried to poll people, they might lie. And even if they did not lie, they might not be consciously aware of how his wheelchair-bound status would affect them.

There are only two cold, hard facts that we can give you here, and they point in different directions. The first is that Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) uses a wheelchair, and he not only got elected, he's a rising star of the Trumpy wing of the Republican Party. The second is that Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the most gifted political minds the nation has ever seen, and he felt that his wheelchair was a liability, so he kept it on the down-low as much as is possible. Maybe 2021 America is a very different country than 1931 America, but maybe it isn't.

We will also give you a little bit of speculation. Our suspicion is that Abbott would not be hurt so much by outright prejudice as by some of the implications of his disability. Earlier this week, for example, we wondered how well he would be able to weather the grueling demands of a presidential campaign. To give another example, presidential candidates give a lot of speeches, and do a lot of town halls. If you stand at the podium, or you stand on stage, and your head is above the heads of the audience, it makes you seem commanding. That is why judges' benches are almost always on an elevated platform. On the other hand, if you are seated, and your head is at the same level as the audience, you seem less commanding. So, it's not out of the question that someone could leave an Abbott speech or town hall or rally saying something like, "I don't know, he just doesn't seem presidential to me," without really knowing where that's coming from.

All of this said, Abbott won election in the big state of Texas, and most people care about the (D) or the (R) more than anything else. So, he's clearly viable, even if we think he might be at a slight disadvantage, all other things being equal, to someone who does not use a wheelchair.

Q: I'm having a disagreement with my friend over two issues. Perhaps you could help and also interest your audience.

My friend comments that 2020 was a close presidential election. I replied that a 4.5% margin in the popular vote is not particularly close in American presidential elections. He countered that a switch of 50,000 votes in a small number of states would have reversed the election. I countered that the chances of all the close states breaking in one direction are very low, like a bunch of coin flips all coming up heads. He thinks that coin flips have nothing to do with elections.

Also, he thinks that the odds of the Electoral College vote turning out differently than the popular vote have increased, as demonstrated by the fact that two elections in the past 20 years have seen that happen. I don't think that's a measure of the likelihood of that event happening again.
D.S., Beverly Hills, CA

A: You're both right on some points.

To start, this business of "but for 50,000" votes is basically sleight of hand. With 50 states voting, and many of those decided by small (or smallish) margins, any presidential election beyond a blowout is going to come down to some relatively small number of votes "in just the right states"—maybe a few hundred thousand, maybe far less. To take a few examples, 249,326 more votes in just the right places would have elected Hubert H. Humphrey over Richard Nixon in 1968, 134,648 votes would have done the trick for John Kerry over George Bush in 2004, 58,584 votes in 1948 would have meant that Dewey really did defeat Truman, and 46,361 votes in 1976 would have sent Jerry Ford back to the White House and Jimmy Carter back to Georgia.

So, you're right to reject that basic argument. On the other hand, your friend is partly right about coin flips. Each flip of a coin is a random event, unconnected to any other flip. On the other hand, close wins in various states are at least somewhat correlated with each other. They are not perfectly correlated, of course, but a candidate winning 9 of 10 close states is considerably more likely than a candidate flipping a coin and getting heads 9 times out of 10.

And finally, your friend is also right about the Electoral College, but not for the reason he says. Given that all but two states (Nebraska and Maine) give every EV to the candidate that gets the most votes, then every vote beyond the one needed for a win is effectively wasted. Those extras count toward the popular vote, but not toward the electoral tally. The Democrats currently get most of their EVs by virtue of their ironclad grip on a handful of big states, which means a lot of those votes are wasted. The Republicans get many of their EVs by virtue of controlling a lot of small states, or having a small advantage in some of the big states (most obviously Florida and Ohio). Fewer of those votes are wasted. Until the population changes in some meaningful way (Ohio and Florida move in the Democrats' direction, or something like that), the circumstances are ripe for what happened in 2000 and 2016.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on why no major Republicans have taken an anti-technology or Luddite stance? It seems like there's quite a bit of redirected fear in the Republican Party, blaming immigrants, socialists, and LGBTQ people for societal changes that can be easily tracked back to technological innovations. Quite some time back I concluded it must be the companies give a lot of money to political parties. But it seems like such an easy target for a populist that I'm still surprised no one has tried it. Can you offer a more educated answer? P.N., Austin, TX

A: To start, "Luddite" is one of those historical terms—"Uncle Tom" is another—that now has a meaning very different from its original one. The Luddites were not actually anti-technology. What they were was skilled artisans who specifically hated the machines being brought into factories to replace them. In other words, they were not motivated by irrational fear, they were motivated by entirely rational self interest.

As to today, scapegoats—whether human or not—work best if they are vaguely familiar, but mostly unknown. There is a reason that anti-Mexican-immigrant rhetoric works better in Indiana than it does in Arizona. It might be that the real source of many Trumpers' problems is technology. However, they nearly all have cars, they nearly all have computers, they nearly all have televisions, and they nearly all have cell phones. So, some sort of neo-Luddism isn't likely to go over so well, given the incongruity of "Did you see that speech about how technology is ruining us? If not, I posted it to my Facebook feed and my Twitter account."

Q: You've often written about how the Republican party is going to collapse, and I agree. The current iteration of the Republican party is not basing much of what they do on anything close to reality, and that is going to catch up at some point.

However, they still represent a large voting bloc of people and those people have to go somewhere. Looking at other political party collapses in U.S. history, is there any way to project what will become of the Republican Party once they do collapse and what that process will look like as it's playing out?
R.M., Pensacola, FL

A: Actually, we don't think they will collapse. What we believe is that their current coalition, and their current platform, are not viable long-term if they wish to remain competitive with the Democrats nationally.

That leaves us with two possibilities that have historical analogues. The first of these is that the Republicans content themselves to be a primarily sectional party, dominating some states, barely registering in others, and rarely winning presidential elections. This is the Democratic Party from the 1860s to the 1920s.

The second possibility is that the Republicans find a way to reinvent themselves, perhaps by jettisoning the racists and xenophobes, and trying to bring more Latinos and Asians into the fold. There are many examples of this in U.S. history, like the Democrats of the 1930s, or the Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s.

There is also a possibility that has no historical analogue, at least not in U.S. history. The Republicans could decide they can't win elections, and that they don't want to change, so they might attempt to destroy the democracy and find a way to seize power illegitimately and indefinitely. That's the course that they are at least dabbling with now, with all the voting-laws shenanigans. Exactly how far they are willing to take it, and exactly how the 200+ million Americans who are not Trump lovers might respond, are unknowns.

Q: If Joe Biden died and Kamala Harris became president, would she still have a tie-breaking vote in the Senate? I suspect the answer would have to be decided by the Supreme Court. J.L.H., Los Altos, CA

A: The Supreme Court would not be needed. If Kamala Harris becomes president, then the vice presidency becomes vacant, and nobody may exercise the powers of that office until it is filled by a candidate nominated by the president and approved by majorities of each chamber of Congress. It is possible that Senate Republicans would refuse to approve a new VP, so as to stop the Democrats from being able to pass laws, since a tie vote means the bill fails. However, that would be a pretty high-profile and extremely undemocratic move, and voters might not like it too much. It would also carry the risk, at least at the moment, of making Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) president.

Q: I may have missed you folks having addressed this question. My apologies if so. But my question is: Could the GOP appoint Trump to the speakership of the House and subsequently impeach Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to put him back in the Oval Office? J.M., Everett, WA

A: We have indeed addressed this, but because it remains such a popular and widespread Republican talking point (fantasy?), we'll answer again.

Anyhow, yes, this is technically possible. However, it is also completely implausible.

To start, the House would have to elect Trump as speaker. The Constitution places no limits on that job, so he's eligible, as are Queen Elizabeth II of England, Angels pitcher/outfielder Shohei Ohtani, the Unabomber, the MyPillow Guy, the entire maternity ward at Cedars-Sinai hospital, and the actor who played Steve Urkel. Then, the House would have to adopt articles of impeachment against both Biden and Harris. Presumably, if the House Republican Conference had enough votes to elect Trump, it would also have enough votes to impeach. However, they don't have those votes right now, because they don't have a majority.

Then, the Senate would have to try Biden and Harris and convict them on the Trumped-up charges. We think it unlikely that all of the Senate Republicans would play along. Even if they did, they would still need 17 more votes, which they aren't getting right now. If, next year, the Republicans held all of their seats, won every single Democratic seat that is up, including in deep blue states like California, Massachusetts, and Oregon, then the GOP would still need three more votes. They're not getting those, either.

Note also that, as long as we're living in a world of what's technically possible, as opposed to what is realistic, 34 of the 50 state legislatures could vote to call a constitutional convention, per the terms of Article V of the Constitution. Then, 38 states could vote to approve an amendment to the Constitution converting the presidency into a monarchy and designating the House of Trump as America's royal family. Heck, he could be back—and as king!—within the week. It's definitely possible. But it's as likely as the "make him speaker and impeach Biden/Harris" route.

Q: Do you know what happens with ranked-choice vote counting if a candidate becomes unavailable (withdraws, dies, needs to spend time with family)? J.S., Houston, TX

A: The same thing that happens with non-ranked-choice voting. Assuming that they withdrew after the ballot deadline, their name remains on the ballot. And if they win, then the same procedure is followed as if they were in the middle of their term. If the person was still living, they would have to formally resign the office they had just won, and then it would devolve upon the next person in the line of succession. If the person was dead, then the line of succession would kick in immediately.

Put another way, there is no provision in ranked-choice systems for "skipping" candidates who are deemed to be "no longer candidates."

Q: In your answer to the question from D.B. in New York concerning the U.S. government's use of slave labor, you included an image of a payroll record for a particular week in 1795. Zooming in on the image, one of the first things I noticed was that the payments were in pounds and shillings. Since the U.S. dollar has been formally in existence since 1792 and informally well before that, can you explain why the government was paying people in pounds instead of the official currency? M.R., Yelm, WA

A: This is something where the 100% correct answer is lost to the mists of time, but where we can at least get close.

To start, payment was made by James Hoban, who was the architect of the project and, in effect, the foreman. He then got reimbursed by the U.S. government. So, the U.S. government was not necessarily paying its debts in a currency other than dollars, one of its subcontractors was.

Moving on, U.S. currency was in a shaky state at that time. Yes, the dollar had been made official, but the government was not in a position to produce a lot of currency and basically did not produce paper bills at all (mostly coins). The need for currency, particularly in the 1780s and 1790s, was filled in three ways. One was that foreign currencies, particularly Spanish pesos and British pounds, were used. A second was that private banks issued their own notes, redeemable for specie (though the notes became less and less usable the further one traveled from the bank). A third was that some states issued their own notes (though the federal government tried to discourage that after 1792).

It may seem that what you are seeing on that document is the use of British pounds, but that's probably not correct. British pounds were in relatively short supply by 1795, and were frowned upon by many people (think: using British pounds was like refusing to wear a mask). Considerably more likely is that the debts were being paid in either the state currency of Virginia or the state currency of Maryland. Though the two states were right on the cusp of a changeover, both were still producing paper currency, and the denominations that both used through the mid-1790s were...pounds.

Incidentally, in case you have ever wondered why $, which looks like an 's,' is the symbol for "dollar," which starts with a 'd,' the process described here is the explanation. Back then, $ actually stood for "Spanish peso." Eventually, the Spanish pesos themselves were replaced in the U.S. by American dollars, but the symbol was not.

Q: I was intrigued by the image you ran of a slave-rental invoice. I like the easy-on-the-eyes sepia tone theme they used, (I use it on my kindle, too) but despite recent cataract surgery, I had trouble making out whatever font they used back then—could you convert to 16-point calibri or arial? It looks like there was a wide difference in the rates charged for various workers. I suppose that reflects varying levels of expertise. Some of the workers had to be highly-skilled artisans. I wonder how that played with the assumption that the slaves were inferior to whites, and I'm wondering what those money amounts might translate into in modern day value. How much did these slaves cost, or were most of them sons and daughters of their owners? Where did they get their training? They don't teach that kind of stuff in history classes, at least not in high school. I never took any History courses in college. S.S., Detroit, MI

A: As noted above, we can't answer all of these questions with certainty, but we can give you some pretty solid guesses.

To start, the image isn't sharp enough for us to read most of it, either. Parchment is really hard to photograph properly. If we had the actual document, we could probably parse it, but we don't.

That said, we can see how much the payments were. The highest earner collected a little bit more than 26 pounds for 30 days of work. That's about $4,500 for a month's worth of work in present dollars, or about $150/day, or about $13/hour. The lowest earner collected about 11 pounds for 30 days of work. That's about $1,900/month, $63/day, and $5.25 an hour.

As to the different wages paid, existing skill sets probably mattered some, though slave laborers tended to be trained on the fly, as necessary. Likely of greater importance was the person's physical condition. A tall, strong, healthy 20-year-old could be expected to complete much more work than a short, not so strong 45-year-old. Of greatest importance was probably the owner's negotiating skills. One of the folks renting slaves to architect/foreman James Hoban was...James Hoban. We are guessing James Hoban was able to extract a kingly ransom from James Hoban.

There is no way to know if any of these folks were part-white, as that was not germane to this particular task, and so was not noted. The place where it would be noted would be in auction advertisements and other sale records. Slaves that were partly of European heritage were generally considered to be more desirable for certain types of jobs, particular domestic work and skilled crafting. When the individual's part-European heritage was being marketed, the "polite" way to express that was to describe them as "yellow." As in "Sally, 25, can cook and sew, good teeth, very healthy, yellow."

Q: Why has it become so common to refer to the 41st president as George H. W. Bush? No one confuses John Adams with his son, John Q. Adams; and almost every time the 43rd president is mentioned, he is identified as George W. Bush. It's not as if anyone had much clue what Bush, the elder, had for middle names until his son got elected. M.J., Oakdale, MN

A: Well, to start, the younger Adams is, and always has been, near-universally known as John Quincy Adams. That's how he styled his name, that's how it appeared on ballots, that's how it appears in history books.

As to the Bushes, you can't just write "George Bush," because that's ambiguous. Further, while the Adamses had the decency to give other prominent members of the family distinct names, like Charles Francis Adams and Henry Adams, there are several other prominent Georges in the Bush family, such as aspiring Texas AG George P. Bush. So there's really no choice but to include the initials, so it's clear what Bush one is talking about, by George.

Q: This week the phrases "credibly accused," "voodoo economics," "commit suicide," "mouth-breather," and almost "ratfu**ing" were removed from the EV lexicon, which had me rolling my eyes. This despite, in several cases, the admission that they are standard parts of the language. I view this kind of language scrubbing as rather patronizing and allows one to substitute empty symbolism for meaningful change. Can you offer a defense of this practice? J.H., Boston, MA

A: Well, if the word/phrase is imprecise, or it's plausibly offensive, and there's a better option, or an equally good option, then why not switch? Surely you agree in theory, as we doubt you use certain used-to-be-ok racial slurs on a daily basis. The only question is how many words one removes from the list.

Where it gets tough is when there isn't a great alternative and/or the potentially problematic term is very well established. You assume that we have dumped all of these, but all we did was run people's letters, and possibly change one or two occurrences of the term. And with ratfu**ing we didn't even go that far (even though we realize that rat lovers may be offended). In any event, we would say that most of these are still under consideration.

Q: How many people wrote in to disagree with the letter from P.C. in Schaumburg, which gave their (obviously incorrect) opinion that "Star Trek: DS9" was anything less than brilliant?

How does that compare to the number of letters you receive whenever you mention other hot button issues, like abortion rights or gun control?
D.T., San Jose, CA

A: As we have pointed out before, we think, the question that generated more letters to "Dear Abby" than any other, by a longshot, was about the correct way to hang a toilet-paper roll.

Point is, what things generate a response, and what things do not, is something of a crapshoot. Hot-button issues do tend to push a button, and we've gotten something like 30 abortion letters in the last week, some of which will run tomorrow. Pop culture stuff also does, at least sometimes, and we probably got a dozen or so DS9 letters. Some of those will run tomorrow, too. As chance would have it, of the two things that generated the most responses in the history of the site, one was a hot-button issue and one was pop culture. A piece that (Z) wrote about how imprecise the word "terrorist" is, and how it mostly just means "bad guys," generated a huge response. And a sentence (Z) wrote in which he improperly characterized the parents on the Brady Bunch (Mike Brady was widowed, but Carol Brady was not) generated an absolute avalanche.

But again, it's not especially predictable, and our guesses about what will and won't generate feedback are often incorrect.

Q: This question is for (Z), since he is attuned to events in the LA area. My neighbor's daughter is transferring to USC next week. The question that I have is as follows: If she should marry a USC graduate, would her father have to provide them financial assistance for the rest of his life? B.C., Huntsville, AL

A: Well, someone has to pay for the BMWs that are mandatory for all alumni.

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